The following article originally appeared on Business Insider.
Sasan Goodarzi has some big shoes to fill, three months or so into his reign as CEO of $66.5 billion Intuit.
His predecessor, Brad Smith, successfully shepherded Intuit into the cloud computing era during an 11-year tenure, delivering huge growth in the subscription-based online versions of Intuit’s flagship TurboTax and QuickBooks products. Smith’s success endeared him to Wall Street, which propelled shares of Intuit to all-time highs.
Goodarzi knows he inherited a good situation. But he also sees something on the horizon that could be as difficult, and potentially as lucrative, as anything faced by Smith.
To Goodarzi’s mind, he told Business Insider earlier this month, the rise of artificial intelligence represents a big opportunity for a company like Intuit — including the chance to adopt a new business model. He foresees a future where users don’t pay for many of Intuit’s products, and the company instead makes money on products like TurboTax by presenting customers with fine-tuned, personalized offers for other financial services.
But Goodarzi says that even that potentially huge shakeup to its business model is secondary to the broader implications of applying artificial intelligence to the world of personal and business finance, where livelihoods literally hang in the balance.
Goodarzi says that there’s a lot of societal upside here: Already, Intuit is using AI to vet applicants for small-business loans. Applicants who would have been rejected by more established lenders are now getting approved thanks to the technology, he says. And the borrower default rate is lower.
But there are lots of potential hazards and pitfalls, too.
“It’s actually a cultural change that we have to go through internally to understand the impact of artificial intelligence,” Goodarzi said. “Right now, I would say that for the first time in a very long time, the technology can do things that our employees don’t yet understand what it’s capable of.”
We spoke with Goodarzi about how he prepared himself to take over from such a distinguished predecessor, and his philosophy on running a company as it faces the unprecedented challenge ahead.
Last August, it was announced that Smith would be stepping down as CEO, with Goodarzi on deck to replace him. Goodarzi had been with Intuit for about 14 years at the time of the announcement, including stints as the leader of both TurboTax and QuickBooks, so he was no stranger to the company. Still, he wanted to prepare.
“It’s an enormous gift to step into this role having been with the company for 15 years,” says Goodarzi. “But there’s a shadow, and the shadow is that you make assumptions that you know everything about the company.”
And so, Goodarzi spent some time with about a dozen CEOs and other leaders he admires, including Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield, and even NFL Hall of Famer Steve Young. He shadowed them in their daily duties, asking questions and getting their perspectives on the world of business.
From Nadella, he learned that a CEO has a truly unique perspective: The CEO knows more about the day-to-day operations of the company than the board of directors; and the CEO knows more about the inner workings of the board than anyone involved in the company’s day-to-day operations. Nadella’s advice, then, was to always keep this “asymmetry” in mind, and consider those perspectives when you run into disagreement on one side or another.
Butterfield’s advice was simple, says Goodarzi: “Best product wins.” Being a CEO is complicated, and requires a leader to pick up a lot of new skills. But if the product isn’t any good, it’s all for naught, says Goodarzi.
He went to Young for a different perspective. In the same way that Goodarzi was preparing to replace Brad Smith, Steve Young had replaced the legendary Joe Montana as the quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers. Young’s advice to Goodarzi on following such a tough act: “Be yourself, don’t be Brad.”
In January, Goodarzi kicked things off with a series of meetings and events with Intuit’s 9,000 employees around the globe. Now, a few months later, Goodarzi is settling in for the long haul.
The thing that makes Goodarzi’s “heart beat fastest” — the very reason why Intuit exists — is the idea that technology can help people be more prosperous, he says. Artificial intelligence is a powerful lever to making that happen, says Goodarzi, and the company is working hard to integrate it into its products.
As with cloud computing, AI is forcing Intuit to rethink and reorganize its approach to products, even its most successful products. It’s early yet, Goodarzi says, but there are already signs of how AI is shaking up Intuit’s business.
“We’re gonna have to reimagine ourselves and not be afraid to disrupt ourselves once again,” Goodarzi says.
Goodarzi says that for TurboTax, its popular tax filing tool, this is most dramatically manifesting in the transition to an “AI-driven expert platform.” The idea is that TurboTax’s algorithms will work in concert with human financial experts: When the system finds a tax question it can’t answer, it connects you with its network of CPAs and tax attorneys. He doesn’t see TurboTax, then, as a replacement for humans, but rather a new way of interacting with them.
“[Customers] actually want to talk to an expert, a human being, to get their questions answered, and so in essence what we are focused on is connecting experts with those that we serve on our platform and fundamentally digitizing the entire service industry — which, by the way, lags behind the technology industry,” Goodarzi says.
More futuristically, Goodarzi praises recent Intuit efforts like QuickBooks Assistant, a voice assistant that lets small business users sift their data and turn up information on accounts payable and received.
He also says that he’s proud of QuickBooks Capital, which weighs the creditworthiness of small business applicants — its algorithm looks at non-traditional factors to help candidates who might otherwise have trouble getting a loan, either because of their background or their lack of a strong credit history.
“We’re able to crunch billions of data using decision engines and artificial intelligence to give you a loan that nobody else would give you,” Goodarzi says.
Away from ‘user-paid’
Looking forward, Goodarzi says that there’s a huge opportunity to use AI to make products like TurboTax free to users. Rather than pay up front, you might give your consent (Goodarzi says that consent is an important part) to have Intuit analyze your data to match you up with a vetted selection of financial products from partners that might include Roth IRAs and credit card offers. Turbo, a new, free Intuit personal finance product, does some of this already.
While everybody likes getting things for free, this plan might raise some eyebrows — Geoffrey A. Fowler of the Washington Post recently called Credit Karma Tax, a similar AI-powered product to what Goodarzi is proposing for TurboTax, a “bold grab for personal data” that’s “taking a business idea that hasn’t worked out well for us with Facebook and applying it to even more sensitive information.”
Goodarzi acknowledges that AI has its downsides, and that constant vigilance is required to guard against unwanted outcomes. He says that the company’s algorithms include data from 26 billion sources, helping the company work to average out the kinds of bias that can sometimes pop up in AI systems. Still, he says, the company’s engineers are always on the lookout to make sure that the systems are working for, not against, its users.
“For the first time in a very long time that technology can do things that our employees don’t yet understand that it’s capable of,” Goodarzi says.
Ultimately, it’s important to learn from both the good and the bad, he says, and Intuit has to be willing to change its approach as results come pouring in, he says.
“You know, we’re in the money business so we have to be very thoughtful,” Goodarzi says.